On this day in 1724, an English lawyer named Richard West, whose job it was to review the laws passed by the Virginia General Assembly lest any squeak by that weren’t quite up to snuff, wrote a letter to his boss, Alured Popple.
Indeed. That was his name.
Anyway, the gist of West’s letter was that the Virginians had passed a law (see page 126 here) denying not just enslaved African Americans the vote, but even free blacks. To the fair-minded West, this was taking things too far, so he alerted our Mr. Popple who, to his credit, got right back to him—eleven and a half years later!
Well, rather than get back to West, what Popple actually did, in 1735, was write a letter to Virginia’s lieutenant governor, William Gooch, asking him to explain the assembly’s action. Scratching his head and doing his best to recall, Gooch informed his English superiors that way back in ’24 there had been a conspiracy to rebel against masters, and “Free-Negros & Mulattos were much Suspected” to have been involved—”which will forever be the case,” the governor added parenthetically before offhandedly mentioning that “there could be no legal Proof, so as to Convict them.”
In other words, there was a conspiracy, see, and we think the free blacks were involved because we always think they’re involved, but of course there’s no proof.
So why then deny them the right to vote? “Such was the Insolence of the Free-Negros at the time,” Gooch wrote, as if that were explanation enough.
And to Mr. Alured Popple it was.
PS: No, you’re not dreaming. We have covered this territory before.
IMAGE: The Popple Family (1730) by William Hogarth; these are the three Popple brothers, “arranged in discreet order of seniority: in the middle and standing highest is Henry (date of birth unknown but probably the eldest), who was Clerk at the Board of Trade and Plantations in 1727 and published a map of the British North American Colonies in 1733; to his right stands Alured (1699–1744), appointed secretary to the Board of Trade and Plantations in 1730 and Governor of Bermuda in 1737–44; sitting on a bank on the right is their younger brother William (1701–64), who was a playwright and poet as well as Solicitor to the Board of Trade and Plantations and Governor of Bermuda (1747–63). Alured fishes, with the help of his wife, Mary (1704–73), and daughter, Marianne (1724–99); at the extreme left sits their sister, Sophia (1704–78), with an owl perched in a tree above her head.”